Tennessee wrapup: Alabama machine keeps grinding opponents into mincemeat

By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
Oct. 20, 2012

 

While Erik Ainge was busy hoping for UT to step on AJ McCarron’s knee, McCarron was busy stepping on Tennessee’s neck.

Meanwhile, Darrington Sentimore found out that the “Rammer Jammer” cheer sounds a lot different listening to it rather than singing it.

There have been big wins in this series, and also some big blowouts. There have been plenty of those big blowouts lately, all of them directed at Tennessee by Alabama. What Alabama managed to accomplish this Saturday night might have trumped the rest. Against a Tennessee team that is too thin for accurate description, but honestly well-coached, Alabama got an early lead, then stuck its foot in the firewall and bulldozed a Volunteer team that needs a lot of work before it can become a contender again.

This is what Alabama football looks like when Alabama doesn’t make critical errors. While the Crimson Tide’s special teams were anything but special, the only big error of the night came by backup quarterback Blake Sims after the game was well out of reach, and even his fumble cost Alabama only 3 points.

Tennessee – changing from a 4-3 look on defense to a 3-4 over/under, under-manned across the depth chart and stinging from late-game collapses against Florida and Mississippi State – played hard (for three quarters, at least) and did everything in its ability to create concern on the Alabama sideline. But Alabama would have none of it. Ruthless and relentless, Alabama pounded Tennessee’s defensive line, pounded its linebackers, and embarrassed its secondary.

All of it combined to make Tennessee look a lot worse than it actually was. In truth, that’s because Alabama may be better than anyone really knows. There isn’t another team in college football playing the game the way Alabama plays it right now. It’s pro-style football played by pro-style players who savor contact. Pain is not an ugly word in the Alabama vernacular, it is the passkey that opens the doors to gates of Hell itself, if you happen to be on the wrong side of the delivery.

Tennessee found that out firsthand Saturday night. The Volunteers came into the game wanting to exorcise demons. Instead, it ran into an Alabama team possessed by the Spirit of Saban. The orange of Neyland Stadium was fitting, as this game resembled Halloween, both the holiday and the horror movie of the same name.

Amari Cooper might as well have been Michael Myers, slashing through the Tennessee secondary as if it had insulted his mother. A.J. McCarron just kept handing him the knives. T.J. Yeldon and Eddie Lacy did their best to effect a segue from a slasher flick to a display of the Hammer of Thor, and Tennessee simply had no answer for any of it.

It’s unclear what it will take for Tennessee to rejoin the ranks of the SEC’s top teams. For now, it’s clear that Tennessee has been lapped, at least temporarily. Florida, Georgia and South Carolina all have clearly better rosters. And whatever slim chance Tennessee had of pulling the upset in this game vanished as soon as Ainge, whose moral compass has a habit of spinning like a ceiling fan, and Sentimore opened their mouths in preemptive frustration.

Now, on to the Five-Point Breakdown.

1. Gameplanning was practically perfect. This might have been the finest hour so far for new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, and no worse than his second-best playcalling display of the year. Only the Michigan game came close. Alabama kept Tennessee off-balance all night, and Nussmeier and crew were not afraid to go after the Volunteers’ biggest weakness: its defensive backfield, not to mention the Tennessee linebackers’ inability to cover the short middle routes. Too often, Alabama can get into the rut of pounding away with the ground game – understandable, given not only the Tide’s ability to do so but also the lack of need to take any chances. Against Tennessee, Alabama repeatedly went after the jugular, and eventually the Vols bled out.

2. WRs forced the issue with Tennessee corners. Building off point No. 1, part of the component of the Saban 3-4 over/under scheme – which Tennessee is trying to copy – is having cornerbacks who can physically challenge receivers and support the run. Tennessee’s corners did neither. Justin Coleman played one of the worst games for an SEC cornerback in years, and 70 years from now may very well be in a nursing home still seeing Amari Cooper in his dreams. Nussmeier, Cooper and McCarron dared Coleman to put up a fight against Cooper, and he would not. Meanwhile, Kenny Bell and Kevin Norwood each made significant contributions, and the playcall of the night might have been to drag Bell across the middle and have a linebacker attempt to cover him. It was a simple call, but one that took a lot out of Tennessee’s defense emotionally, not to mention opening up running lanes for Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon.

3. Defensive backs answer the bell. Alabama faced a stiff challenge coming into the night, as they were asked to cover three quality receivers, a tight end and Tennessee’s backs using two cornerbacks and a combination of safeties. The results couldn’t have been more clear. Other than a long pass to TE Mychal Rivera that was simply the case of checking into the right call in the face of a blitz, Alabama harassed Justin Hunter, Zach Rogers and Cordarrelle Patterson mercilessly. Rogers made no impact, and Patterson – other than on special teams – was just a blip on the radar. Alabama limited Hunter’s damage, although things might have been different had he not dropped a long pass off a coverage mistake from Deion Belue. But overall, Belue played a great game given that Tennessee’s wideouts were significantly bigger than he was, and Dee Milliner continues to cement his status as one of the best corners in college football. As the coup de grace, safety Robert Lester stepped up his game another notch, picking off Bray in the end zone, a play that was equal parts a terrible throw from Bray and some baiting on the part of Lester.

4. Special teams revert to the mean. Cade Foster missed two kicks, and his inability to put his first few kickoffs into the end zone gave Patterson a chance to hurt Alabama in the return game. On kickoff coverage, Alabama is back to where it was near the end of 2011, when lane discipline and missed tackles became an issue until the Tide made some personnel moves heading into the BCS Championship Game. On top of that, A.J. McCarron dropped a snap on a point-after try, which is one of those never-happens things that actually happened this time. Nothing about this performance can’t be corrected, but Alabama needs to shore up this issue before entering the home stretch.

5. Offensive distribution is reaching critical mass. For many years – dating back even before the Nick Saban era – Alabama’s trademark has been to win games with its defense and one or two playmakers on offense, usually in low-scoring affairs. Even under Saban, there has typically been a one-receiver-one-running-back-tandem approach to the offense, such as when the offense would run either through WR Julio Jones or running backs Mark Ingram or Trent Richardson. The 2012 Alabama team, though, has been about offensive diversity. Alabama has four receivers who are each an equal threat to get the ball, TE Michael Williams is a proven weapon and then, of course, there are the running backs. Alabama utilized backup QB Blake Sims in a Wildcat look early against Tennessee, adding that wrinkle to the tapestry. If Alabama continues to make balanced use of all its offensive weapons, what has long been a punishing offense will quickly become an offense no defense can answer. The breakout of Amari Cooper in recent weeks has been the most recent addition. It will be crucial to continue along this path, as both Mississippi State and LSU bring tough defenses to the table.

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